Perspectives on Western Sahara

Investigating the myths surrounding the struggle over the Western Sahara.

Perspectives on Western Sahara: Myths, Nationalisms, and Geopolitics. Edited by Anouar Boukhars and Jacques Roussellier. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland, 2014. 354 pp.

The conflict in Western Sahara is largely unknown to the broad public. Not much is written on the subject in English and what little there is tends to be plagued by distortions, or even outright fabrication. Here is a case of international injustice, yet even in elite and intellectual circles, Western Sahara has long been abandoned to the margins of discussion. A considerable body of myths has been allowed to accumulate around the conflict, which may obscure the limited remaining avenues for anything like a just solution.

The facts are straightforward. Western Sahara is a former Spanish colony, a little larger in size than the United Kingdom. The United Nations failed to guide the territory through a successful transition to independence. It remained under colonial administration long after its neighbors, Morocco, Mauritania, and Algeria, gained independence, in 1956, 1960, and 1962 respectively. By the 1970s, Spain was finally coming to realize that its days of controlling a large slice of the Sahara were numbered. Faced with rising internal resistance and UN pressure, Spain announced in 1974 that it would bow to demands for self-determination in the territory by holding a referendum in which the Sahrawi would be free to choose independence.

Western Sahara’s northern neighbor, Morocco, had other ideas. The Moroccan monarchy sought to restore its own pre-colonial empire; it viewed Western Sahara as part of a Greater Morocco that stretched from Tangiers to Senegal, incorporating all of Mauritania, parts of western Algeria, and even as far as Gao and Timbuktu in northern Mali. The claims to the rest of Greater Morocco had by now been abandoned, but the Moroccan king, Hassan II, had no intention of allowing an independent Western Sahara—confidently predicted by all sides to be the most likely outcome of the referendum. Hassan organized first an invasion, and then an under-the-table deal with Spain and Mauritania (in contravention of the UN Charter) to take control of most of the territory. The United Nations has failed to do anything about it since, and Morocco has retained control of Western Sahara for the last thirty-eight years.

Despite these basic points having been repeatedly demonstrated by researchers, international human rights organizations, independent scholarship, and the official documentary record, the Moroccan government still claims that it has done nothing more than peacefully recover Moroccan land stolen by European empires. It denies the invasion, denies committing human rights abuses in the territory, and often brands the indigenous Sahrawi—who refuse to stay silent about the conflict—as Algerian-backed terrorists.

There are, surely, many myths about Western Sahara that should be addressed, and Perspectives on Western Sahara: Myths, Nationalisms, and Geopolitics, a collection of essays edited by Anouar Boukhars and Jacques Roussellier, occasionally does so. Morocco’s historical claim that Western Sahara had been consistently under Moroccan sovereignty until Spanish colonization in 1884, for instance, is comprehensively shown to be false in an essay titled “A History of the Conflict in Western Sahara” by Osama Abi-Mershed and Adam Farrar. The myth first purveyed by Hassan II (and still parroted by apologists for the Moroccan government) that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled in favor of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in 1975 is likewise rightly dispatched. The ICJ opinion examining Morocco’s claims, as Abi-Mershed and Farrar point out, “unambiguously” ruled against Moroccan sovereignty.

Unfortunately, the most pervasive and destructive myths about the Western Sahara conflict are at best left unmentioned and are at worst repeated and embellished in this 354-page tome. It doesn’t help that some of the authors are paid lobbyists of the Moroccan government. The false claim that there was no Moroccan invasion of Western Sahara might seem like a reasonable starting point. The official Moroccan government line has it that, in 1975, a peaceful collection of 350,000 Moroccan civilians reclaimed Western Sahara on foot in an event promoted as the Green March, or Massirat Fath (Victory March). What really happened is rather less poetic. The Moroccan civilians were, in fact, accompanied by 20,000 soldiers, and only ventured around ten kilometers into the territory before turning back. Days before the Green March, Moroccan troops had already illegally entered the territory and taken key strategic positions, clashing with the Sahrawi.

This attack, which constitutes the “supreme international crime” of aggression, marked the beginning of a massive Moroccan military presence in the territory that remains today. The local population numbers just over 500,000, but the Moroccan armed forces maintain a force of between 100,000 and 140,000 soldiers, not to mention a 2,600-kilometer separation wall equipped with advanced surveillance technology. In Western Sahara, multiple independent civilian sources recounted their experiences of the invasion to me, which included reports of killings, captures, the slaughter of livestock, and the razing of villages—notably Guldon, Hausa, Mahedrega, Fehehrita, and Berenzeen. It is surprising to find the myth of a peaceful Green March still uncritically repeated, as it is in Perspectives at least half a dozen times.

In the arguments made by Morocco in defense of their continued presence in Western Sahara, not only is the invasion of the territory denied, but the refugees from the invasion are vilified. In the 1975 invasion, thousands of Sahrawi fled their homes for refugee camps in Tindouf, in the western Algerian desert. They remain there today, surviving as best they can in extreme conditions. In the chaos and war that followed, an armed resistance group known as the Polisario Front became the primary remaining organizational structure available to the Sahrawi, and it emerged as a de facto government. The Polisario was established in 1973 after the Spanish had crushed an earlier non-violent Sahrawi independence movement, Harakat Tahrir. They fought the Spanish, attempted to resist the Moroccan invasion, and waged a guerrilla war against the Moroccan occupation until 1991. There are many legitimate criticisms to be made of the Polisario (not least among these that they failed to successfully resist the invasion), but the extent of internal Sahrawi dissatisfaction with the Polisario is often exaggerated.

According to the majority of independent academics and researchers who have carried out fieldwork in the camps, most of the Sahrawi refugees still support the Polisario. Whatever one thinks of the group, it remains the main representative body of the Sahrawi. The Moroccan state and its supporters, however, claim that the Polisario has no popular legitimacy and even, in extreme cases, that it is imprisoning refugees. Perspectives does little to correct this misconception. In her essay, “The Algerian Foreign Policy on Western Sahara,” Laurence Aïda Ammour makes the bizarre claim that the Polisario today represents nothing more than an entirely discredited anachronism, and that the Tindouf refugee camps have deteriorated into little more than terrorist recruiting grounds. She also claims as a fact “that [Polisario] camps have become recruitment centers for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), and other criminal groups.” This is a claim also often made by paid lobbyists in Washington, yet no substantive conclusive evidence of this has been presented.

Another myth that goes unaddressed is that the conflict represents a dispute between two basically equal sides. The Moroccan state clearly enjoys advantages over the Sahrawi. Among them are its ties with foreign powers; with Spain, including at the time of the handover of Western Sahara to Morocco at the Madrid Conference in 1975; and with France and the United States, in strategic relationships that enable Morocco to maintain its occupation. Yet according to the myth, Sahrawi obstinacy as an obstacle to peace is given the same weight as the Moroccan rejection of the Sahrawi’s legal right to a referendum. The Polisario Front is described as the “Algerian-backed” Polisario in an attempt to reinforce the notion of equivalency. In “Western Sahara: A Conflict on the Fringes of New Regional Dynamics,” Khadija Mohsen-Finan reinforces the myth thusly: “Backed by Algeria in its fight for a territory it considered to be its own, the Polisario Front harnessed all the great myths of Third World resistance and insisted that the Sahara was still a territory under colonial yoke.”

Another myth is that Western Sahara is a “disputed” territory. Morocco and its supporters deny that Western Sahara is under occupation. But in “The Use and Development of Natural Resources in Non-Self-Governing Territories,” Glynn Torres-Spelliscy correctly notes that “Morocco is not the de jure administrator of Western Sahara.” Furthermore, he says, “Under international legal principles, a state in de facto control of a territory has three possible legal classifications: sovereign, administrator, or occupier.” As we have seen, Morocco is not the legal administrator of Western Sahara and therefore a fortiori can’t legally be sovereign either (in any case no state in the world recognizes Moroccan sovereignty). The third option remains: occupier. It would be difficult to imagine a state of affairs that more resembles a military occupation. The UN came to the same conclusion in General Assembly Resolution 34/37 in November 1979. Debate on this question should no longer be necessary.

The perpetuation of myths raises serious questions about the prospects for a settlement of the Western Sahara conflict, which continues to be framed by many as an ideological impasse trapped in “the complexity of identity.” Within this narrative, the Sahrawi hold that they are an independent people who had an independent (albeit occupied by colonizers) land that was taken from them by the Moroccan monarchy. Morocco conceives of the territory as a portion of its pre-colonial nation that was cruelly dismembered by the European powers and must now be safely reattached. The truth of the matter is seen as unimportant; instead, a “realist” settlement should be sought.

Each side presents a proposal that is reasonable on its face. The Sahrawi accept being subjected to a referendum for their own land; Morocco is willing to extend autonomy to its “Southern Provinces.” In theory, and with more hard-nosed, realistic analysis, the two perspectives will be reconciled enough to bring them both to the table, and in view of Morocco having the support of the great powers and having created facts on the ground for almost forty years, it is seen as more practical to negotiate an end to the conflict with a settlement based on the 2007 Moroccan autonomy plan.

This is fantasy. First, it misunderstands the commitment of the Sahrawi to their right to a free referendum, and the commitment of Morocco not to acknowledge any such thing. These positions have become in effect sacred values and no  amount of diplomacy will see the parties compromise on them. A failure to recognize  this helps no one. Second, the argument relies on the belief that there is a Moroccan autonomy proposal to begin with. Of course, there is a Moroccan autonomy proposal in the most technical sense: some documentation exists and rhetorical flourishes about its “seriousness” abound in Rabat, Brussels, and Washington. But closer analysis of what’s called the Moroccan autonomy proposal reveals that it, in fact, amounts to little more than diplomatic sleight of hand.

To see this, one has only to look back to 1997—ten years before the current “autonomy proposal” emerged—and read reports of discussions in high-level Moroccan policy circles of what was referred to as “decentralization” or “regionalization.” For reasons independent of Western Sahara, the Moroccan palace has long been considering restructuring elements of the Moroccan state by devolving some small matters to local government councils—the governors of which would of course all be directly appointed by, and answerable to, Rabat. Tentative planning of this local government restructure has been quietly pursued for almost twenty years, but in the mid-2000s the notion of including Western Sahara into the plans began to emerge. By March 2011 advanced decentralization featured as a central theme of a speech King Mohammed VI gave in response to widespread street demonstrations organized by the February 20 protest movement.

As Middle East scholar Marina Ottaway has noted, Morocco transformed its 2007 proposal for Western Sahara into a “one-size-fits-all” system in which all Moroccan regions would enjoy more self-rule. In other words, the autonomy plan has become advanced decentralization, nothing more. The problem is worse than that. Inside the framework of the decentralization plan Western Sahara is addressed, namely by dividing it into multiple regions that are then combined with other parts of mainland Morocco. The territory as it exists today would not even be one of the decentralized regions on its own. In reality, the autonomy plan is a serious and credible threat by the palace to fully complete the annexation of Western Sahara.

There are alternatives. The parties have fundamental and irreconcilable commitments—the Sahrawi to their legal rights, and the Moroccan state to its imagined ones. Given this, the conflict must no longer be treated as a local matter and instead be recognized for what it has always been: an international responsibility. This is an approach that happens to also be more realistic than the “realist” proposals for “negotiated settlement achieved over time” because of the nature of the parties’ intransigence. Despite Samuel J. Spector’s claims in “Self-Determination for Western Sahara: The Evolution of a Concept,” a free referendum is only “unworkable or unattractive” for Morocco. The UN long since established the right of the indigenous people of Western Sahara to decide what happens to their land: integration with Morocco, special autonomous status under Morocco, or independence. International law could be enforced.

One might very well contend that this would require a fundamental change in the policies of the nations holding veto power in the UN Security Council. But such a change is by no means impossible. It has been done before—something similar was achieved in the case of U.S. policy towards East Timor—and could be done again. Were the convenient myths about the conflict discarded rather than perpetuated, real popular pressure could be brought to bear on the governments of the powerful states to ensure that a free referendum is held. The values of the UN Charter call on us to dispense with the notion that there was no invasion, that there is no occupation, that the Sahrawi are merely terrorists, and that the Moroccans are offering viable autonomy.

Tom Stevenson is an independent journalist based in Cairo. He has contributed to This is Africaand International Business Times. In 2013, he reported from Western Sahara for Al Jazeera English. On Twitter: @TomStevenson.